Like the transdiscipline of cybernetics, the philosophical movement known as Existentialism rose to prominence in the decade following World War II, was communicated to the general public by a handful of charismatic evangelizers who, for a time, became bona fide celebrities in popular culture, generated much excitement and innovation on university campuses across Europe, the Americas and beyond, and, in subsequent decades, seemed to fade to the periphery of intellectual discourse with some declaring both movements dead and others keeping the faith in small circles of committed artists, scholars, and practitioners. Along the way, both movements have found some of their strongest expressions through works of art; from the plays and novels of some of existentialisms key players, to the 1968 Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition that toured America after its original incarnation at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in London.
In the early decades of the 21st century, well into the so-called Information and at a historical moment fraught with new and amplified ethical challenges, both fields seem, to many, to be poised for a comeback. One such observer is Steve Dixon, whose monograph, Cybernetic-Existentialism: Freedom, Systems, and Being-for-Others in Contemporary Arts and Performance (Routledge, 2020), not only explores the often surprising conceptual overlaps between the two fields but manages to offer nothing less than an original aesthetic theory fusing perspectives from the philosophy of Existentialism with insights from the ‘universal science’ of cybernetics to provide a new analytical lens and deconstructive methodology to critique art.
In this study, Steve Dixon examines how a range of cutting edge contemporary artists’ works embody core ideas from such Existentialist philosophers as Søren Kierkegaard, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, and Jean-Paul Sartre on freedom, being and nothingness, eternal recurrence, the absurd, and being-for-others while, simultaneously, engaging in complex explorations of concepts proposed by such cyberneticians as Norbert Wiener, Claude Shannon, and Gregory Bateson on information theory and ‘noise’, feedback loops, circularity, adaptive ecosystems, autopoiesis, and emergence.
Dixon’s ground-breaking book demonstrates how fusing insights and knowledge from these two fields can throw new light on pressing issues within contemporary arts and culture, including authenticity, angst and alienation, homeostasis, radical politics, and the human as system. Join me now as Dixon, in his own words, “talks for England” in an energetic romp across these complex, overlapping intellectual and aesthetic landscapes.
Tom Scholte is a Professor of Directing and Acting in the Department of Theatre and Film at the University of British Columbia located on the unceded, ancestral, and traditional territory of the Musqueam people.
Tom Scholte is a Professor of Directing and Acting in the Department of Theatre and Film at the University of British Columbia located on the unceded, ancestral, and traditional territory of the Musqueam people